Notes on Bordiga's "The Democratic Principle"

Here are some quick notes on Amadeo Bordiga's text "The Democratic Principle." Because, why not? Creating a blog post has the same workflow as taking notes (which is to say, connect to my server and type some stuff up in vi).

Anyway, I've read the first section or two of "The Democratic Principle" several times over the last 10 years or so, but always gave up after that because Bordiga's writing can be ponderous and I had a hard time figuring out where he was going with his arguments in section 2. That being said, I am glad I just summoned up the attention-span to finally fully read the article. It is relatively straightforward and contains many important points. Indeed, it is an useful complement to Lenin's State and Revolution since Bordiga develops some ideas in greater depth and corrects Lenin's weakest points. (See my blog post with notes on Lenin's State and Revolution for some discussion of this.)


"The Democratic Principle" begins with the assertion that Marxists attack democracy in bourgeois society, but defend its application within proletarian organizations (e.g., the party, trade unions). This is because

The Marxist critique of the postulates of bourgeois democracy is in fact based on the definition of the class character of modern society. It demonstrates the theoretical inconsistency and the practical deception of a system which pretends to reconcile political equality with the division of society into social classes determined by the nature of the mode of production.

Political freedom and equality, which, according to the theory of liberalism, are expressed in the right to vote, have no meaning except on a basis that excludes inequality of fundamental economic conditions. For this reason we communists accept their application within the class organizations of the proletariat and contend that they should function democratically.

Bordiga concludes the section with the admonishment that the goal of Marxism is not to realize the democratic ideal, as certain Social Democrats believed. Bordiga thus aims to examine democracy in detail in order to "eliminate the danger of again raising the democracy principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice."

Section 1

Bordiga makes the profound point that Marxism is against the political ideology of liberalism as much as it is against the political ideology of feudalism. Both ideologies are based on an idealist conception:

The old political doctrines based on spiritualist concepts or even on religious revelation claimed that the supernatural forces which govern the consciousness and the will of men had assigned to certain individuals, families or castes, the task of ruling and managing the collective existence, making them the repositories of "authority" by divine right. To this, the democratic philosophy which asserted itself at the time of the bourgeois revolution counterposed the proclamation of the moral, political and juridical equality of all citizens, whether they were nobles, clerics or plebeians. It sought to transfer "sovereignty" from the narrow sphere of caste or dynasty to the universal sphere of popular consultation based on suffrage which allowed a majority of the citizens to designate the leaders of the state, according to its will.

Bourgeois democracy is "unrealistic and unmaterialist" because

it considers each individual to be a perfect "unit" within a system made up of many potentially equivalent units, and instead of appraising the value of the individual's opinion in the light of his manifold conditions of existence, that is, his relations with others, it postulates this value a priori with the hypothesis of the "sovereignty" of the individual. Again this amounts to denying that the consciousness of men is a concrete reflection of the facts and material conditions of their existence, to viewing it as a spark ignited with the same providential fairness in each organism, healthy or impaired, tormented or harmoniously satisfied in all its needs, by some undefinable supreme bestower of life. In the democratic theory, this supreme being no longer designates a monarch, but confers on everyone the equal capacity to do so! In spite of its rationalist front, the democratic theory rests on a no less childish metaphysical premise than does "free will", which, according to the catholic doctrine of the afterlife, wins men either damnation or salvation. Because it places itself outside of time and historical contingencies, the democratic theory is no less tainted with spiritualism than are the equally erroneous philosophies of revelation and monarchy by divine right.

In short: "In the democratic theory, this supreme being no longer designates a monarch, but confers on every the equal capacity to do so!" For Bordiga this is both untrue (the capitalist has a much greater ability to influence the state) and unwelcome (he rejects the idea that consulting everyone always leads to the best decisions).

Section 2

Here Bordiga attempts to sketch a history of human social organization.

Bordiga begins by saying that previous political thought is "arbitrary." Marxism, on the other hand, is based on the "thorough study of the nature and causes of social relations in their complex evolution throughout human history and a careful analysis of their characteristics in the present capitalist epoch from which it drew a series of reasoned hypotheses about their further evolution." It is this that prevents "apriorism" -- fixed value judgments -- from sneaking into Marxism.

Bordiga begins to trace the history of "the mode of social organization and grouping of men, not only in the state, an abstract representation of a collectivity fusing together all individuals, but also in other organizations which arise from the relations between men."

He starts with the individual. But the individual cannot be the basis of social organization because for humans, and a good many other animals, reproduction necessitates a family organization. But the family is not simply a grouping of equal individuals who freely decide to come together: "... the family represents an embryo of organized collective life, based on a division of functions directly determined by physiological factors, since the mother nourished and raised the children, and the father devoted himself to the hunt, to the acquisition of plunder and to the protection of the family from external enemies, etc."

Bordiga further claims that society, as aggregation of all individuals or even all families, does not exist. Families tend to congregate within clans, clans within tribes, etc. (Only under communism, Bordiga says, can there be a world in which all other groupings disappear.) Thus both the "individual-unit" and "society-unit" are not the proper basis for studying social organization. Instead

we follow the formation and the evolution of other units in our study of human history: organized human collectivities, broad or restricted groupings of men with a hierarchy based on a division of functions, which appear as the real factors and agents of social life. Such units can in a certain sense be compared to organic units, to living organisms whose cells, with their different functions and values, can be represented by men or by rudimentary groups of men. However the analogy is not complete, since while a living organism has well-defined limits and obeys the inflexible biological laws of its growth and death, organized social units do not have fixed boundaries and are continually being renewed, mingling with one another, simultaneously splitting and recombining. If we dwelt on the first conspicuous example of the family unit, it was to demonstrate the following: if these units which we are considering are clearly composed of individuals and if their very composition is variable, they nonetheless behave like organic and integral "wholes", such that to split them into individual units has no real meaning and is tantamount to a myth. The family element constitutes a whole whose life does not depend on the number of individuals that comprise it, but on the network of their relationships. To take a crude example, a family composed of the head, the wives and a few feeble old men is not equal to another made up of its head and many strong young men.

Setting out from the family, the first organized social form, where one finds the first example of division of functions, the first hierarchies, the first forms of authority and the direction of individuals' activities and the administration of things, human evolution passes through an infinite series of other organizational forms, increasingly broad and complex. The reason for this increasing complexity lies in the growing complexity of social relations and hierarchies born from the ever-increasing differentiation between functions. ... An analysis which seeks to understand the process of formation and change of different human organizations, as well as the interplay of relations within the whole of society, must be based on the notion of the development of productive technology and the economic relations which arise from the distribution of individuals among the different tasks required by the productive mechanism. The formation and evolution of dynasties, castes, armies, states, empires, corporations and parties can and must be studied on the basis of these elements."

Bordiga makes one other important point in this section. Marxism does not raise any social form to a principle:

We take care not to make this [the family] a fixed or permanent type or to idealize it as the model form of the social collectivity, as anarchism or absolute monarchy do with the individual. Rather we simply record the existence of the family as the primary unit of human organization, which will be succeeded by others, which itself will be modified in many aspects, and which will become a constituent element of other collective organizations, or, one may suppose, will disappear in very advanced social forms. We do not feel at all obliged to be for or against the family in principle, any more than, for example, for or against the state. What does concern us is to grasp the evolutionary direction of these types of human organization. When we ask ourselves whether they will disappear one day, we do so objectively, because it could not occur to us to think of them as sacred and eternal, or as pernicious and to be destroyed. Conservatism and its opposite (i.e. the negation of every form of organization and social hierarchy) are equally weak from a critical view-point, and equally sterile.

Section 3

Here Bordiga discussed democracy in the bourgeois state.

Bordiga proposes to examine the "democratic principle" as it is applied in "organized collectivities whose hierarchies are imposed from outside and those that choose their own hierarchy from within." To put it another way, we might say he looks at democracy as it applies to relationships between multiple, competing units -- for instance, in class society -- and as it applies within a single, homogeneous unit (e.g., the political party).

Initially in human history,

It is the necessity of the division of functions which gives rise naturally to hierarchies; and this is what has happened in the case of the family. As it develops into a tribe or horde, it must organize itself in order to struggle against rival tribes. Leadership must be entrusted to those most able to use the communal energies, and military hierarchies emerge in response to this need. This criterion of choice in the common interest appeared thousands of years before modern democratic electoralism; in the beginning kings, military chiefs and priests were elected. In the course of time, other criteria for the formation of hierarchies prevailed, giving rise to caste privileges transmitted by inheritance or even by initiation into closed schools, sects and cults. ... In one way or another, every ruling caste provides itself with its own organization, its own hierarchy, and likewise, economically privileged classes. ... Here [in a monarchy] we have a type of organized collectivity whose hierarchy was instituted from without since it was the king who bestowed the ranks, and in the army, passive obedience was the rule. Every form of state concentrates under one authority the organizing and officering of a whole series of executive hierarchies: the army, police, magistracy, bureaucracy. Thus the state makes material use of the activity of individuals from all classes, but it is organized on the basis of a single or a few privileged classes which appropriate the power to constitute its different hierarchies. The other classes, and in general all groups of individuals for whom it was only too evident that the state, in spite of its claims, by no means guaranteed the interests of everyone, seek to provide themselves with their own organizations in order to make their own interests prevail. Their point of departure is that their members occupy an identical position in production and economic life.

Bordiga continues to say

As for organizations which provide themselves with their own hierarchy, if we ask what is the best way to ensure the defence of the collective interests and to avoid the formation of privileged strata, some will propose the democratic method whose principle lies in using the majority opinion to select those to fill the various offices.

Our critique of such a method must be much more severe when it is applied to the whole of society as it is today, or to given nations, than when it is introduced into much more restricted organizations, such as trade unions and parties.

This is because

The division of society into classes distinguished by economic privilege clearly removes all value from majority decision-making. Our critique refutes the deceitful theory that the democratic and parliamentary state machine which arose from modern liberal constitutions is an organization of all citizens in the interests of all citizens. From the moment that opposing interests and class conflicts exist, there can be no unity of organization, and in spite of the outward appearance of popular sovereignty, the state remains the organ of the economically dominant class and the instrument of defence of its interests. In spite of the application of the democratic system to political representation, bourgeois society appears as a complex network of unitary bodies. Many of these, which spring from the privileged layers and tend to preserve the present social apparatus, gather around the powerful centralized organism of the political state. Others may be neutral or may have a changing attitude towards the state. Finally, others arise within the economically oppressed and exploited layers and are directed against the class state. Communism demonstrates that the formal juridical and political application of the democratic and majority principle to all citizens while society is divided into opposed classes in relation to the economy, is incapable of making the state an organizational unit of the whole society or the whole nation. Officially that is what political democracy claims to be, whereas in reality it is the form suited to the power of the capitalist class, to the dictatorship of this particular class, for the purpose of preserving its privileges.

Therefore it is not necessary to devote much time to refuting the error of attributing the same degree of independence and maturity to the vote of each elector, whether he is a worker exhausted by excessive physical labour or a rich dissolute, a shrewd captain of industry or an unfortunate proletarian ignorant of the causes of his misery and the means of remedying them. From time to time, after long intervals, the opinion of these and others is solicited, and it is claimed that the accomplishment of this "sovereign" duty is sufficient to ensure calm and the obedience of whoever feels victimized and ill-treated by the state policies and administration.

Bordiga therefore turns to democracy within homogeneous social units, particularly the proletarian state, proletarian parties, and trade unions.

Section 4

In this section Bordiga discusses democracy in the proletarian state.

He begins with the assertion that "the principle of democracy has no intrinsic virtue. It is not a 'principle', but rather a simple mechanism of organization, responding to the simple and crude arithmetical presumption that the majority is right and the minority is wrong."

In the proletarian dictatorship democracy may or may not be useful. This depends entirely on circumstance. Thus "if although we might reach the conclusion that the democratic mechanism is useful under certain conditions, as long as history has not produced a better mechanism, we must be convinced that there is not the slightest reason to establish a priori the concept of the sovereignty of the 'majority' of the proletariat. In fact the day after the revolution, the proletariat will not yet be a totally homogeneous collectivity nor will it be the only class."

Bordiga goes on to say

We will not consider it [the proletarian state constitution] metaphysically as something absolute, as reactionaries do the divine right of the monarchy, liberals, parliamentarism based on universal suffrage, and anarchists, the non-state. As it is an organization of one class destined to strip the opposing classes of their economic privileges, the proletarian state is a real historical force which adapts itself to the goal it pursues, that is, to the necessities which gave birth to it. At certain moments its impulse may come from either broad mass consultations or from the action of very restricted executive organs endowed with full powers.

One thing is sure -- while bourgeois democracy's real goal is to deprive the large proletarian and petty-bourgeois masses of all influence in the control of the state, reserved for the big industrial, banking and agricultural oligarchies, the proletarian dictatorship must be able to involve the broadest layers of the proletarian and even semi-proletarian masses in the struggle that it embodies. But only those who are the victims of democratic prejudice could imagine that attaining this end merely requires the setting up of a vast mechanism of electoral consultation. This may be excessive or -- more often -- insufficient, because this form of participation by many proletarians may result in their not taking part in other more active manifestations of the class struggle. On the other hand, the intensity of the struggle in particular phases demands speed of decision and movement and a centralized organization of efforts in a common direction, which, as the Russian experience is demonstrating with a whole series of examples, imposes on the proletarian state constitutional characteristics which are in open contradiction to the canons of bourgeois democracy. ...

We do not claim that these new criteria introduced into the representative mechanism, or codified in a constitution, stem from reasons of principle. Under new circumstances, the criteria could be different. In any case we are attempting to make it clear that we do not attribute any intrinsic value to these forms of organization and representation. This is translated into a fundamental Marxist thesis: the revolution is not a problem of forms of organization. On the contrary, the revolution is a problem of content, a problem of the movement and action of revolutionary forces in an unending process, which cannot be theorized and crystallized in any scheme for an immutable "constitutional doctrine".

Bordiga then talks at length about the rationale for the specific forms of organization found in the early Russian state. Bordiga goes on to discuss the need for centralism, for a communist party, and discusses at length the specific forms the Russian state employed. He concludes by saying that

None of these considerations is absolute, and this takes us back to our thesis that no constitutional schema has the value of a principle, and that majority democracy in the formal and arithmetic sense is only one possible method for coordinating the relations that arise within collective organizations. No matter what point of view one takes, it is impossible to attribute to it an intrinsic character of necessity or justice. For Marxists these terms have no meaning. Therefore we do not propose to substitute for the democratic schema which we have been criticizing any other schema of a state apparatus which in itself will be exempt from defects and errors.

Section 5

Here Bordiga addresses the use of democracy within the party and within trade unions. He very nearly summarizes his argument when he writes "since one joins unions or parties by virtue of a spontaneous decision to participate in a specific kind of action, a critique which absolutely denies any value to the democratic mechanism in the case of the bourgeois state (i.e. a fallacious constitutional union of all classes) is not applicable here." But he also adds that it is important to not raise democracy to a principle even within proletarian organizations, so as to "not to be led astray by the arbitrary concept of the 'sanctity' of majority decisions."

In the trade unions, Bordiga advocates a flexible line on democracy: revolutionaries may use it as an argument to dislodge the union bureaucracy, but should discard it once revolutionaries have captured the leadership of unions. "We must accelerate their transformation from organs of counter-revolutionary influence on the proletariat into organs of revolutionary struggle. The criteria of internal organization have no value in themselves but only insofar as they contribute to this objective." The possibility of "capturing" the trade unions was probably unrealistic in 1922, and certainly is now, but the larger point remains: it is content and action that matter, not decision-making processes.

Within the party, "there is no doubt that for the moment there is nothing better to do than hold to the majority principle. But as we have emphasized, there is no reason to raise use of the democratic mechanism to a principle."

Finally, compare this to Pannekoek's article "The New Blanquism" of 1920:

We are by no means fanatics of democracy, we have no superstitious respect for majority decision nor do we render homage to the belief that everything the majority does is for the best and must succeed. Action is crucial, activity overpowers mass inertia. Where power enters as a factor, we want to use and If, nonetheless, we firmly reject the doctrine of the revolutionary minority, this is just for the reason that it must lead to a mere semblance of power, to merely apparent victories, and thus to serious defeats.

Whatever their other differences, the Italian and the German/Dutch communist lefts are on the same page here.